Title: Cultivating spirits : the art of Sepik River Yam displays
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00091706/00001
 Material Information
Title: Cultivating spirits : the art of Sepik River Yam displays
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Publication Date: July-October 2008
Copyright Date: 2008
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00091706
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.

Full Text


6 OF

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Cultivating Spirits

The Art of Sepik River Yam Displays

In the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, yam
cultivation and exchange is at the center of ceremonies
that involve the production of elaborate architecture,
sculpture, personal adornment and masks. The
culmination of yam ceremonies occurs at the time of
harvesting when yams are adorned and displayed in the
setting of a monumental ceremonial house designed to
hold sacred objects.

Many Sepik peoples, such as the Kwoma, Nukuma and
Abelam, value yams as a delectable food but also regard
them as manifestations of spirits. In the Sepik region,
where some yam species reach up to 12 feet in length,
large yams are prized and reserved for ceremonial
purposes. Growing the largest yams possible is an
exceptional feat because of the belief that only men who
are strengthened by ritual purification and have extensive
knowledge of the supernatural world can coax the yams
to grow to their maximum size.

When the largest yams are harvested, men initiated into
various groups who own the yams prepare elaborate
constructions to show their prized tubers. The yam
assemblages are decorated to honor the spirits and
impress onlookers. Their placement inside or in front
of the ceremonial house, which is filled with sculpted
and painted images of clan totems on the posts, beams
and ceilings, enhances the displays' visual and spiritual
impact. During the yam harvest ceremonies, initiates
of various groups view the yams and stage a series of
performances. The most spectacular displays garner the
most prestige for the grower and the yam's owner and
potentially enhance their religious, political and social
status in the community.

Abelam people, Maprik Highlands, Papua New Guinea
Ceremonial Daggers (yina or tipakowgihe). 20th century, cassowary bone
(left) 13 % x 2 x I /4 in. (34.9 x 5.1 x 3.2 cm.)
(right) 9 2 x 2 x I in. (24.1 x 5.1 x 1.125 cm.)
Loaned by the C. Frederick and Aase B. Thompson Foundation

Though men control the cultivation and display of yams
and the ceremonial performances, women may observe
and participate in some of the events. Furthermore,
performances and displays are suffused with female
imagery; yams and yam spirits are also characterized as
female. Underscoring the theme of fertility, the interior
of the ceremonial houses are thought of as wombs by the
Abelam, while the Kwoma consider the yam displays to
be womb-like.

Ceremonial yams are thought of as manifestations of the
power of spirit beings, but they are also considered to be
the flesh and blood of the men who grow them. Because
of these interpretations, it is forbidden for men to eat the
yams they grow. At the end of the ceremonial display
period, yams are exchanged between clans, thus ensuring
sustenance and harmony for the community.

Susan Cooksey, Ham Curator of African Art

The curator gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Rick
and Aase Thompson, Dr. Anita Spring, Dr. Ross Bowden, Dr.
Richard Scaglion, Dr. Teri Sowell, Dr. Michael Hamson and Dr.
Mark Groudine in providing expertise and materials for this

Abelam Yam
Harvest Ceremonies
and Displays

The Abelam people live in the
East Sepik province of Papua
New Guinea, between the
floodplain of the Sepik River
to the south and the Prince
Alexander Mountains to
the north. Among the most
important rites in Abelam
society are those related to
yam cultivation and display.
Yams are a staple food for the
Abelam, who cultivate more
than a hundred varieties
of yams. They distinguish
between short yams, ka, and
long yams, wapi, which grow
up to twelve feet long and are
grown only by men. The wapi
are nurtured by yam spirits,
or wapinyan, literally "long
Lumi region, Papua New Guinea yam children," although
Hourglass Drum, c. 1940
Wood, reptile skin, paint it is ultimately the clan
29 '/4 x 7 / in.(75.6 X 19.1 cm.) spirits, or ngwalndu, who
Loaned by the C. Frederick and responsible
Aase B. Thompson Foundation are possible for the yam
crop. The long yams are also
believed to be sensate beings who can hear and smell.
Growers must know the language and lore of the yams to
utilize the spells and magical paints that stimulate their

When wapi are harvested, men from each clan group
take the largest ones and adorn them with paint, feathers,
shells and other materials. Each yam is thought to have
a unique identity and must have a distinctive face, which
may be painted or attached as a wicker, bark or wooden
mask. The decoration of the yams is replicated in the
body adornment that the men don in the ceremony that
follows. Their personal adornment indicates how closely
men identify both with the yams and the yam spirits.
The adorned yams are suspended from poles at a slanted
angle and lined up outside the men's ceremonial house.

The yam harvest ceremony lasts for two days and
includes viewing of the yam displays, dancing and
singing to the music of drums and bamboo flutes. At
the conclusion of the ceremony, each of the yam owners
gives away his most prized yams to an exchange partner.
Men are measured by their success in producing the
most yams and the largest yams, thus yam displays are a
competitive means of elevating their religious, social and
political status.

* Kwoms people
Papua Now Gwineia.","
ScuiJpture Fwgum-f.t0ip

Vi ood pigmet.
40x i 15?% c
Loand ofEne

Thompso Fc.npamc,

The minja display at Bangwis, December 1973. The figure shown is Asabor owned by
the Yapanobok of the Chikbirka Clan. It faces the back of the men's house.
Photograph courtesy of Ross Bowden.

Kwoma and Nukuma Yam Harvest
Ceremonies and Displays

The Kwoma and Nukuma peoples, who are linguistically
and culturally related, live in the East Sepik province of
Papua New Guinea in the Washkuk Hills and riverine
areas respectively, about one hundred miles from the
mouth of the Sepik River. Both groups value yams,
although the tubers are not a staple food for them. They
also perform complex ceremonies at the time of the annual
yam harvest. The ceremonies and the groups that organize
them share the same names: yena, minja and nowkwi.
Yam cultivation may only be done by the members of the
nowkwi association who have reputedly slain an enemy in

For each of the three yam harvest ceremonies, the group
members create a large display of yams and sacred objects
inside the men's house (korob). An elaborate korob may be

adorned with painted Nvood SCUlptures and intricately
painted sago bark ceiling panels depicting clan totems.
'the Sculptures are said to bc manifestations ofPowel-fal
sph its, kow sikilowas, who are responsible for the
fertility of-thc Nam gardens. For the Yc)ia ceremony, a
I ramcwork or sta,,e (kobo) is built in the Central I)art of,
the house as a container for selected yams and Sculpted
heads, which are owned by VdriOLIS Members
of vena and represent varn spirits
O'cao masiik). '[he Sculptures are
attached to the poles projecting
froin the kobo and are decorated
with paint, leaves, flowers,
leathers of cassowarics,
chickens and birds of paradise,
Pig tUsks, and shells.

Kworna and NukLlma
va ni harvest cerernon ies
include music an d dances,
performances bN the men
of the clan and viewing
of the yam displays.
After two davs, the
ceremony ends, and
the entire display is
dismantled. A signal is
given to begin min ja,
which includes only two
sculptures (mbi ja masiik),
but otherwise, displays
and ceremonies are similar
to those of yena. The last
ceremony, nowkwi, occurs
later and prominently features
sculpted figures of powerful
female clan spirits (ow kataivo).
At the conclusion of the yam
ceremonies, vams are exchanged
between clans. 'lhe ultimate
measure of the success of the
ceremonies is the placation of the
yam spirits who will, if properly
honored, ensure an abundance of
yams for the next harvest.



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